Food additives and preservatives: are they safe?

3,000 sugar and salt additives in processed foods have people concerned. Find out how to identify safe vs. unsafe food additives and preservatives.

Candy bowl

Step into any candy store and your eyes will light up with rainbows of bright and tempting colors, tempting you to taste the rainbow. But before the fun colors and dyes began dominating the food market, additives and preservatives such as salt and sugar were used to keep food safe. 

Now over 3,000 are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for everyday use (1). Yet their complex and confusing names may leave you feeling concerned. Learn how to identify common food additives and preservatives and if they are safe.

Difference between additives and preservatives

Food additive

A food additive is any substance that’s added to a food during production, processing, treatment, packaging, transport, and storage (1). Direct additives have a purpose or function, such as adding texture. These are the ones that are indicated on the food label. Indirect additives are those that become part of the food due to the packaging, storage or other handling (1). For instance, Bisphenol A (BPA) is used to line a can but it may leak into the food product. 

Color additives are used to make foods more visually appealing. They offset color losses that happen from environmental factors or production. They’re also used to create “fun” foods such as colorful candy. There are nine certified color additives that are approved for use. 

Food preservative 

Preservatives are added to food to prevent spoilage from bacteria, mold, fungi, or yeast. They also slow or prevent changes in color, flavor, or texture. Preservatives can also keep foods fresh by delaying rancidity. For instance, certain antioxidants may be used in oil to prevent the delicate oils from breaking down.

What foods have additives and preservatives?

There are thousands of ingredients used to make our foods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently has a list of over 3,000 ingredients in its database (1). Some are created in a lab while others are more natural, such as using turmeric for color. 

The FDA requires that food manufacturers list all ingredients on the food label. They are listed by descending order of weight. So when you look at a label, the first ingredient is the one that product has the most of. 

Some additives are listed by individual name, while others can be listed together. For instance, “artificial flavorings” can group together different flavor ingredients. 

Common additives and where they are found:

  • Preservatives: ascorbic acid, sodium benzoate, tocopherols.
    • Baked goods, cured meats, oil, cereals, snack foods.
  • Color additives: FD&C Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow. Beta-carotene, caramel color, vegetable juices. 
    • Candy, snack foods, cheese, soft drinks, pies. 
  • Sweeteners: sugar, glucose, fructose, corn syrup.
    • Baked goods, sweets, beverages. 
  • Nutrients: niacin, folic acid, iron, ascorbic acid, amino acids. 
    • Bread, cereals, rice, flour, milk, energy bars. 
  • Emulsifiers (smoothing agents): soy lecithin, egg yolks, mono- and diglycerides.
    • Chocolate, margarine, peanut butter, salad dressings.
  • Thickeners: gelatin, pectin, xanthan gum, carrageenan.
    • Dairy products, cakes, dressings, jams, sauces.
  • pH control agents: lactic acid, citric acid, sodium carbonate.
    • Beverages, chocolate, canned foods.
  • Leavening agents (promotes rising): monocalcium phosphate, baking soda, calcium carbonate.
    • Breads, baked goods (1).

Benefits of additives and preservatives

Our ancestors started using salt, sugar, herbs, spices, and vinegar to help keep food safe, tasty, and lasting longer. Nowadays food manufacturers use additives and preservatives to save on costs by extending the shelf life and allowing for safe transport and packaging.

If they were completely removed from food, we would have to rely almost solely on growing, harvesting, and cooking our own food. Preservatives and additives help decrease the preparation time, reduce the risk of food spoilage, and offer convenience. 

Improve safety and freshness

Preservatives and additives slow food spoilage that’s caused by mold, oxygen, bacteria, fungi, or yeast. They also help prevent fats and oils from becoming rancid. And improve freshness, such as with an apple that turns brown when exposed to air (1). 

Maintain nutritional value

When food is processed, some nutrients may be lost in the process. In order to boost vitamin and mineral content, foods can be fortified (added to food whether they were originally there or not) and enriched (original nutrients are added back) (1). 

Increase taste, texture and look of food 

Food colorings can improve the look of food, for instance it’s much more appealing to have black olives from a can, instead of the brownish green that they would become during the processing process. Spices, flavorings, and sweeteners are added to improve the taste. Thickeners, stabilizers, and emulsifiers help give food a better texture. 

Are additives and preservatives safe?

In general, additives and preservatives are used at levels that are safe for adult human consumption. However the American Academy of Pediatrics expresses concern, pointing out that since children are smaller, they may have an increased risk of harm (2). They express particular concern about these:

  • Bisphenols (BPA): may increase body fat, cause problems with immunity, and interfere with sex hormones.
    • Lining of food and soda cans, cash register receipts, plastics 3 or 7.  
  • Phthalates: can act like hormones and increase the risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease. 
    • Plastic food packaging as well as toys, lotions, fragrances.
  • Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs): may lead to low-birthweight babies, problems with the immune system, and fertility. 
    • Cardboard packaging, grease-proof paper, nonstick pans.
  • Perchlorate: may interfere with thyroid function.
    • Some dry food packaging and drinking water.
  • Artificial food colors: may increase symptoms in children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder. 
    • Colored food products such as candy and cakes (2).

Some evidence has also suggested that nitrates and nitrites, which are used for preserved and processed meat (bacon, deli meat, ham, sausage), can increase the risk of some cancers (3). In addition, having an excess of added sugar, fat (particularly trans fat) and salt from processed foods, have been linked with some diseases (4, 5).   

“Add” whole foods to “preserve” your health

Food additives and preservatives definitely serve their purpose in our modern food production. They provide safe, appetizing, and convenient food. However, for optimal health, it’s always a good idea to focus on including more fresh, natural foods and homemade dishes in your daily routine. 

Want to start eating a cleaner diet with less preservatives and additives? Checkout a clean eating plan which focuses on real, unprocessed foods that don’t come from a lab: Lifesum: Clean Eating

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All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice.

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